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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2021

Nudging: A Very Short Guide

Summary

This brief essay offers a general introduction to the idea of nudging, along with a list of ten of the most important ‘nudges.’ It also provides a short discussion of the question whether to create some kind of separate ‘behavioral insights unit,’ capable of conducting its own research, or instead to rely on existing institutions.

Liberty-preserving Approaches

Some policies take the form of mandates and bans. For example, the criminal law forbids theft and assault. Other policies take the form of economic incentives (including disincentives), such as subsidies for renewable fuels, fees for engaging in certain activities, or taxes on gasoline and tobacco products. Still other policies take the form of nudges – liberty-preserving approaches that steer people in particular directions, but that also allow them to go their own way. In recent years, both private and public institutions have shown mounting interest in the use of nudges, because they generally cost little and have the potential to promote economic and other goals (including public health).

In daily life, a GPS is an example of a nudge; so is an ‘app’ that tells people how many calories they ate during the previous day; so is a text message, informing customers that a bill is due or that a doctor's appointment is scheduled for the next day; so is an alarm clock; so is automatic enrollment in a pension plan; so are the default settings on computers and cell phones; so is a system for automatic payment of credit card bills and mortgages. In government, nudges include graphic warnings for cigarettes; labels for energy efficiency or fuel economy; ‘nutrition facts’ panels on food; the ‘Food Plate,’ which provides a simple guide for healthy eating (see choosemyplate.gov); default rules for public assistance programs (as in ‘direct certification’ of the eligibility of poor children for free school meals); a website like data.gov or data.gov.uk, which makes a large number of data sets available to the public; and even the design of government websites, which list certain items first and in large fonts.